Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Adult Car

Your first couple of cars usually represent compromises. Through high school and college you drove what you had, what you can afford. Not that these cars were not fun or fast, but your choices were likely limited by parents or money, or both. We all know the kid that got a brand new Mustang convertible for his or her 16th birthday, but I didn't live in that world.

Kristin's Mini Cooper S - and  yes, this is an adult car
Your first adult car comes when you get that first adult job out of college and you can finance something decent. For example a friend of mine's daughter, who drove her parent's VW Jetta, graduated last year and bought herself a new Mini Cooper S, her first adult car.

Your first adult car might not be brand new, but it is yours. You chose it and you are making the payments. The road to my first adult car was winding and bumpy; I almost bought the wrong one. But eventually I wound up with one of my favorite "cars of Ralph."

By my senior year of college I was a certified car nut. Luckily I did not have to worry "what job could I get in May?" Army ROTC had that covered and I would be commissioned as a second lieutenant the day after graduation. So the raging question in my mind, and one that honestly I spent more time on than schoolwork, was, "what car should I get in May?"

I had developed a fairly detailed list of requirements. First and foremost, it had to be a performance car of some type. This was 1985 and the car malaise of the past 10 years was waning. There were lots of interesting options including the new 5.0 Mustangs, the redesigned Camaro and Firebird, Datsun Zs, and Toyota Supras.

My second requirement was Army-related. I was headed to Fort Knox, Kentucky for tank training followed by three years of duty at Fort Hood, Texas. I needed a car that had some cargo capacity and would be reliable for long distances. Finally, as a Californian headed to the South, good air conditioning was also important.

Cargo capacity, reliability, and AC killed my first adult car opportunity: a pristine, low-miles 1978 Alfa Romeo Nikki Lauda Spider. Owned by a friend's father, the price was reasonablearound $7,000 if I remember correctly. It was gorgeous, sleek and sporty. But it just did not seem to be the right car for Texas, to say nothing of cargo space, reliability and air conditioning. Sadly (or perhaps wisely), I passed. Reading up on these rare cars today I find that many enthusiasts dislike the Nikki Lauda badging and decals. In 1985 I thought they looked awesome. I also liked The Go Gos.

Moving to something a bit more practical, the new Firebird also caught my eye and I seriously shopped them. I could have swung the payments on a Formula with the 305 V8 rated at 210 horsepwer. But my performance inclinations ran more to handling over speed  and the dealers were not budging on price. So a Firebird was out.

Eventually I wound up at Neillo Volkswagen-Audi in Sacramento signing on the dotted line (with Dad co-signing) to buy a slightly used 1985 Audi GT. I really wanted a quattro coupe, but as those were not available in the US I was settling for the 100 hp five cylinder model. It was a bad decision and I sort of knew it. The car was sporty but under-powered, more looks than go.

Literally as I began to sign my name I mentioned to the salesman the one car that I really wanted but had been unable to find. "Actually, we have one out back," he said, stunning me. "The owner's wife has been driving the car and just returned it." I didn't sign my name.

After a circuitous hunt I had found my first adult car. Use the Comments section to tell your first adult car story!


  1. I didn't actually get my first adult car until after I was married. Over the years I had several cars that had been passed down by my father: the Mazda RX2 (which you'll remember), a gray market Series II XJ6, a '57 Morris Minor and a BMW 2002. The BMW wound up being my graduation present when I finished university and I held onto it for about six years. In 1993 I bought a 1988 Merkur Scorpio, which was really a German Ford. I've always had a weakness for big German sedans. They tend to be good looking cars and they age well. I had driven an XR3ti in Switzerland and really liked it, but didn't really like the XR4ti with its whale-tail. Ford only imported Merkur for three years, and the cars had near-vertical depreciation curves. While Scorpios listed for around $28,000 new I got mine for about $6,000.

  2. My first adult car - by this definition - was a 1989 Nissan 240SX Coupe. (Not the more common hatchback.) It was a great car; cheap to buy and own, got great mileage, and was tons of fun to drive. It certainly had more suspension than engine, but that's always been a good thing for me...

    While I thought it was a great looking car, the primary reason I bought it was because it was one of the very few, if not only, car available in the class (that would be the sporty-affordable class) which was rear-wheel drive.

    If only I had held onto it - I could have been a champion drifter these days!